A bill banning the use of nearly all plastic plates, forks, knives and other food service items on Oahu was passed Wednesday by the Honolulu City Council, but there’s sharp disagreement about whether there will be enough nonplastic replacement goods available at a reasonable price when the prohibition takes full effect in 2022.
Chris Yankowski, president of Triple F Distributing, said both the nonplastic replacement products and the material used to make them are in short supply and could drive up packaging costs for restaurants and other food service companies by at least 30%, costs that would be passed on to their customers.
But David Pang, owner of Malama Eco Products and no relation to the reporter, said the nonplastic products are, and will continue to be, in ample supply and that any increase in price caused by converting from plastics will be negligible.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell is expected to sign Bill 40, which would impose the strictest plastics ban in the state and could be among the toughest in the United States. While Hawaii and Maui counties recently adopted laws prohibiting single-use foam plates, clamshells, bowls and other containers, the Honolulu ban would include all types of plastics and additionally would include all plastic forks, spoons, knives and other utensils.
The bill was supported by environmental groups — including many college and high school students — who spoke of the long-term harm to the earth from continued plastic use. It was opposed by a broad spectrum of food industry and other businesses that said the bill is vague and requires too much too soon.
The bill’s effective date is Jan. 1, 2021, when plastic service ware would be banned while other types of service ware would be distributed to customers only upon request. The bulk of the prohibitions, however, will take place on Jan. 1, 2022. That would include polystyrene and other plastic plates, bowls and other food ware, as well as the general sale of plastic products to food industry companies, or anyone, unless they have exemptions.
Yankowski, whose company is among the leading suppliers of food service products, said the ban is going into effect just as polylactic acid (PLA), a non-petroleum-based bioplastic made largely of cornstarch and/or sugar cane that is biodegradable and is a key ingredient in many nonplastic food service products, is in short supply.
Forcing restaurants and other retailers who serve food to move to nonplastics will mean “at least a 30% increase in their packaging costs, at a minimum,” Yankowski said. That would include plates, clamshell containers, bowls, cups and utensils, he said.
“Basically, if you’re paying a nickel now, you’re going to pay 25 or 35 cents for that same (nonplastic) product,” Yankowski said. “If you’re paying a penny for a straw, you’re going to pay 3 or 4 cents for a paper straw. If you’re paying 3 cents to a nickel for a foam clamshell, you’re going to be paying a quarter or more now. When you’re serving thousands of these things a day, it starts to add up for a small business.” And that’s not including the conversion to nonplastic utensils, cups and bowls, he said.
“You could easily take a plate lunch package, which would be a drink and a clamshell and utensils, and add an extra buck to the whole thing, easily,” Yankowski said.
“Everybody wants to be green and we’re all leaning toward that,” he said. “Literally, on a monthly basis, new technology is coming out and getting better. And it will get there in maybe five years, probably.”
Time to prepare
The two-year ramp-up time to the Honolulu bill’s full ban will provide some additional time, and that will help, he said. “And the longer you wait, all these are going to come down in price,” he said.
Part of the frustration, he said, is that PLA-based products do not handle heat well.
Yankowski stressed that roughly 40-50% of his food service products already are eco-friendly and would pass the restrictions set up by the bill. “We sell these products, too, and we’re not against (the ban). We’re saying do this thing logically and don’t hurt business in the process. Triple F is going to be fine either way because I sell both products.”
Pang, whose Malama Eco Products is an offshoot of Ilio Products, which is known for its pet-related products, said he thought about the need to come up with biodegradable food service items about a decade ago when he saw one of his sons take a serious interest in picking up waste whenever the family went on picnics.
Over the last three to four years, he’s seen sales double each year, Pang said. Malama products can be found at most major supermarkets and other retailers.
At Longs a bag of 25 Malama forks cost 99 cents except when they go on sale and cost 89 cents, which is how much regular plastic forks cost at regular price, Pang said. Times Supermarkets, like a growing number of restaurants, is using his food ware in their deli sections, he said.
His bowls are made primarily of sugar cane and don’t leak when microwaved or heated in some other way, he said. Straws, meanwhile, are made of bamboo and sugar, which don’t melt even in heated liquid, but will break down and biodegrade within months when he placed in dirt, he said.
Most PLA products use corn syrup, while most of Pang’s are made of cornstarch. In utensils such as forks and spoons, the product bends but doesn’t snap apart like PLAs, he said.
“Everyone’s talking about clamshells and how expensive they are,” Pang said. That’s a fallacy, he said, noting that a number of mom-and-pop restaurants already are using his product. “They’re doing it because what they found is that the incremental cost is minuscule.”
The cost of nonplastics
A clamshell container costs about 6 cents more, and utensils and straws about a penny more each, Pang said. He’s estimating the typical drive-in is paying about 16 cents per container, while his cost 22 cents. Restaurant-quality forks cost about 1.5 cents, while his are 2 cents. Plastic straws cost 1-2 cents, and his sell for 3-4 cents, he said.
“We’re not talking about big difference,” Pang said. “For a complete plate lunch — your drink, your fork, your plate, everything combined — you’re talking about a difference of 10 cents. So the adage that everything is more expensive and going to be 300% more, it’s not true. We’ve been in the marketplace for nine years selling this.”
If a food outlet can’t raise their prices by 10 cents, he said, “you’ve got bigger problems.”
Yankowski, when told of Pang’s claims, said he does not dispute that Malama has a strong enough product that is both affordable and available.
“He may well have a product that I haven’t seen yet,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff out there. Some of it is so new that we don’t even know if it’s good or not, or if it’s safe. He may have found something that he found somewhere in Southeast Asia, and it may be working great, that hasn’t hit the mainstream yet. And if he’s the guy who’s cornered that part of it, then good for him. I wish I knew what it was so I could look into it.”
Pang isn’t the only one who said the job can be done.
Ari Patz of Sustainable Island Products last week showed Council members a dozen different containers, cups and utensils that his company sells. “The products work. They are available and they are affordable,” he said.
But Joy Gold, a spokeswoman for food packaging company K. Yamada Distributors, echoed Yankowski’s warnings about the PLA shortage. Gold gave Council members a copy of an August letter to Hawaii food packaging distributors from World Centric, a company that manufactures plant-based products, that explains the shortage and how short supply is affecting growing demand.
“Short-shipping is an issue right now,” Gold said. “Oahu cannot compete (with major mainland cities) because our market is so small. So what happens when restaurants and consumers do not have any acceptable products? That is something that is going to be an issue.”